Is Peter Gabriel the most prolific musician out there who hasn't released a proper studio record in 10 years? Fans may have to keep their ears to the ground to keep up with the man, but he's clearly neither lazy nor a hermit: Since 1992's Us, he has undertaken a mammoth, lavishly staged tour, created a theatrical piece to celebrate the turn of the millennium, and experimented with various multimedia art projects in the CD-ROM arena, where the shifting sands of computer compatibility make it hard to find one's audience. Most importantly, he has kept afloat Real World records, one of the most exciting labels to release pop and traditional music from the non-English-speaking world.
For an artist who tirelessly promotes others' work, he seems to drag his feet a bit on his own. The gap between his solo records grows with each release — Security to So was four years, So to Us was six — but his Web site indicates the current drought won't stretch beyond a decade: "Up `the new one` will be released sometime in 2002," the Webmaster stresses.
Meanwhile, Gabriel has a new soundtrack record out. Called Long Walk Home, it's the accompaniment to Phillip Noyce's Australian tale, Rabbit-Proof Fence. He has also taken the time to remaster his entire back catalogue, and the fruits of his labor are on record shelves now, thanks to Real World and Geffen Records. (Some of my writer friends, who are given to fits of house cleaning on deadline days, can probably identify with this reissue campaign.)
One nice side effect of seeing these records on display again is that it might provoke listeners to view Long Walk Home alongside the composer's two previous soundtracks, Birdy and Passion (his score for The Last Temptation of Christ). Film scoring turns out to be a perfect use of Gabriel's gift for atmosphere, and an endeavor where he can step back from his songwriting while retaining his individual style.
To varying degrees, all three records find Gabriel gathering a bunch of raw material around him — samples, recordings of guest artists, tracks from his own past — and molding them into a cohesive new whole. On Birdy, he's happy to let his synthesizers sound like synthesizers, lonely and electronically pure, as sterile as the institutional walls that hold Matthew Modine's character in the film. On the other hand, the justly revered Passion is thick with earthy sounds and textures; even when he uses samples of ancient instruments in ways that are clearly studio-manipulated, there's a rhythmic thrust to the music that keeps it grounded, even when Gabriel's hybridized ethnography ranges from Turkey to Senegal. Long Walk Home is calmer and less showy than Passion, with long repetitive sections and slowly unfolding elements evoking the wide plains of Australia's outback, but it's gorgeous nonetheless.
Those less interested in cinema than in songs, though, might use Gabriel's six studio discs to fill the time until Up. If it has been a while for you, as it has for me, the exercise might be enlightening. For example, I've always thought of the singer's biggest hits, such as "Sledgehammer," as songs that stuck out like sore thumbs, simpleminded quasi-soul bombast in an environment of otherwise carefully cryptic soundscapes. But as far back as his first solo outing, Gabriel was planting little mood-destroying land mines like "Excuse Me," which was clearly not a commercial inclusion. The gorgeous tunes that invariably follow these sledgehammers — "Don't Give Up" and "Humdrum," in the cases above — are made more effective by the contrast.
However sick MTV made us of certain tunes, returning to So 16 years later leaves little doubt that it's a masterpiece — one that gets its pop rocks off while incorporating weird bits of art like "We Do What We're Told" and "Excellent Birds." Who cares if it took four years to make?
With any luck, we'll have an equally loaded platter to contend with "sometime in 2002."